Who was/is Sonny Burgess ? - CDs, Vinyl LPs, DVD and more
Sonny Burgess: The Classic Recordings 1956-1959
Out to the dancehall
Cut a little rug
We're runnin' like wildfire
And hittin' that jug..
A cursory listen to some of Sonny Burgess's records suggests a life lived close to the edge - nights spent playing gin mills followed by drunken chases down dirt roads, firing off bottle rockets and puking over the neighbour's car at dawn. In person, though, Burgess is a somewhat shy and self-effacing family man. The occasional comment will hint at more turbulent waters but he hasn't lived the life one might anticipate from some of his lyrics, which is just as well, otherwise there might not be a Sonny Burgess to talk to. When Sun's crop of rockabilly singers forsook the shaking music they usually reverted back to their first love - country music.
Sonny Burgess was the exception. His passion was Rhythm & Blues. He had a true R&B voice like a tenor sax in full cry. It was short on subtlety and delicate shadings - but a magnificent rock & roll instrument. Soon after he quit the music business, Burgess took a salesman's job in a store, and still talks with enthusiasm of an old black guy who used to bring in his guitar, and play loping Jimmy Reed riffs. Sonny would sit and jam with him. Perhaps a blues album is the great Sonny Burgess album that has yet to be made. Born near Newport, Arkansas on May 28, 1931, Albert ‘Sonny' Burgess grew up on a farm, and developed his musical tastes listening to the Grand Ole Opry and the Memphis country stations, taking in R&B from WLAC in Nashville and WDIA in Memphis along the way.
Sonny Burgess did his hitch the Army, and returned to Newport with the thought of a career in baseball, or -failing that- farming. He worked for a spell in a box factory, and slowly put together a semi-pro band that went under several names and through several incarnations, eventually calling themselves the Moonlighters. He was back working on the farm when, as he put it, "farming started interfering with my music." In an early version of the group, Sonny Burgess was the guitarist, Paul Whaley handled the vocals in a Hank Thompson style, Kern Kennedy played piano, Russ Smith was on drums, Johnny Ray Hubbard played bass, and Bob Armstrong handled the accordion. After Whaley went back to California, Sonny Burgess took over the vocals, and Armstrong eventally quit.
There was no shortage of venues because Newport in Jackson County permitted liquor to be sold but was surrounded by dry counties; hence a number of nightclubs out of proportion with Newport's population. They played local nightspots like the Silver Moon, Bob King's and Mike's club. They often played at King's on Friday night; Saturday night belonged to Punky Coldwell, a saxophonist who led a racially mixed jazz dance band. When Elvis Presley came to the Silver Moon Club in October 1955, Sonny Burgess organised the supporting act, and put together Newport's version of a supergroup combining some of Punky's men and the Moonlighters. According to Sonny Burgess, Elvis tried to hire Punky and Kern Kennedy that night to flesh out the meagre sound of Scotty and Bill.
Also, according to Sonny Burgess, Elvis got the idea to record One Night from the Pacers, who often performed it as much as five times a night. For his part, Elvis's contribution to Sonny Burgess's career was to implant the idea of going to record at Sun. At some point early in 1956, the Moonlighters went to Sun for an audition. Sam Phillips told them that they needed a fuller sound so Burgess joined forces with Jack Nance and Joe Lewis who had another local band. It was Lewis who came up with the name 'Pacers' for the new group, copping it from the Pacer airplane. Both Smith and Nance played drums so Nance (who was a music major in college) switched to his other instrument, trumpet. Sonny Burgess had originally wanted a saxophone player to emulate Punky Coldwell, but he figured that the trumpet gave the Pacers a little different sound. On May 2, 1956 Burgess drove back to Memphis. Phillips was impressed with the revamped line-up and cut their debut single that afternoon.
We Wanna Boogie and Red Headed Woman stand among the rawest recordings released during the first flowering of rock ‘n’ roll. The lyrics were almost unintelligible (although they repay close attention with some very funny couplets), and the instrumentation teetered on the edge of atonality. It was a record that sported an air of total abandon, sounding as if it had been created under the heavy burden of alcohol, although Sonny Burgess remembers that everyone was stone cold sober, and nervous to the point of apprehension. Despite being almost unmarketable according to established precepts, Red Headed Woman reportedly sold over 90,000 copies. It did especially well in Boston, although Burgess was unaware of that fact until Nance and Lewis toured there a few years later with Conway Twitty. At that time the Pacers were managed by Gerald Grojean, the assistant manager of a local radio station, KNBY.
On one of their early trips to Memphis, the Pacers went to see Bob Neal, who held the promise of broader horizons and promised to get them on tour with Presley. "We come back home," remembered Sonny Burgess, “and about a year later we hadn't heard nothing so we went back and saw him again. He said that Gerry Grojean had got on the phone crying, saying ‘You can't take them away from me'. Bob said he didn't need all that crap and told Gerry he could keep us." Grojean, who knew little more about the business than the Pacers themselves had no idea how to expose the group outside Newport during a critical stage in their career.